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Hearts to Mouths For Bro
by Anthony Chase
Brother Augustine Towey dies
Brother Augustine Towey, C. M., a titan of Western New York theater and an inspiration to generations of Niagara University students, died on Thanksgiving Day, November 22, 2012, after a long illness. The outpouring of grief was immediate, widespread, and effusive within a community that found itself brimming with words that seemed profoundly inadequate. With characteristically theatrical eloquence, more than one person evoked Cordelia’s protestation that she cannot heave her heart into her mouth when called upon to articulate her feelings for King Lear.
Brother Augustine began his career at NU in 1964, teaching English literature and speech. Soon, however, he became involved with the Niagara University Players, and from this beginning a nationally recognized theater program grew.
Setting an exceedingly high standard, he had an uncommon eye for talent and could see the promise of a formidable actor, even in a freshman audition. Brother Augustine energized the NU program with his ability to lure such Broadway luminaries as Eileen Heckart, Chita Rivera, David Hyde Pierce, Debra Monk, Karen Ziemba, Charles Strouse, John Kander, and Fred Ebb—personal friends all—to Lewiston, where they would interact with undergraduate theater students.
Brother Augustine was a director of note, establishing his reputation with highly regarded productions at Artpark and the Irish Classical Theatre, among other theaters. He wrote 12 plays for the stage and television, and was greatly admired as a poet. Among his many honors, he was the recipient of the Artie Award for Career Achievement from Artvoice.
He is best remembered, however, as a teacher and mentor.
Sharon Watkinson, current chair of Theater and Fine Arts at NU, recalls her longtime association with “Bro.”
“I have known and worked with Brother Augustine for almost 50 years,” said Watkinson. “Bro was my teacher, my mentor, my colleague, my friend. He was a part of every major rite of passage in my life. I came to Niagara in 1968, and together we worked to make theater at Niagara University happen. Our journey through the years was truly a joy ride, [including all the] bumps and curves along the way. Throughout all those years, Bro forged on, taking on new challenges, setting new goals and always meeting them with success. Truly, the real and genuine inspiration for what is now the Elizabeth Ann Clune Center for Theatre at Niagara University was Bro, one unique human being who touched a million lives.”
Numerous others echo Watkinson’s sentiments. Many former students remained very close to Brother Augustine, and continued to call upon him for advice and to visit him both in Lewiston and in the Philadelphia area after his health began to fail.
Armand Schultz, a noted actor on stage, screen, and television, whose credits include Broadway’s Frost/Nixon and the role of the father in the first national tour of Billy Elliot, notes that with Brother Augustine’s passing, he now personally has “35 years of major takeaways.”
“We became great friends,” says Schultz, “and he was my daughter’s godfather. He left us on Thanksgiving, so now we will have that to remember every year—and I am thankful for so many things. As a teacher, I think that what stands out about Brother Augustine was that every student mattered, and that is rare. No matter how talented you were, he wanted to help you become what you wanted to be, or what he saw you could be. Every person mattered.”
Actor Michele Ragusa, who has played roles in the original Broadway productions of Titanic, Ragtime, Urinetown, and Young Frankenstein, in which she replaced Megan Mullally, as well as originating roles in For the Boys and Adrift in Macao, reveals that Brother Augustine was a huge influence in her life and career.
“Many people may not know that I had no interest in pursuing a career in theater,” says Ragusa. “Basically, I went up to see NU and to meet Brother to put an end to the endless comments being tossed my way to take this step. When I first walked through the door and entered Bro’s office (the first door on the right), I didn’t know what to make of this man in his blacks and collar. He seemed nice but serious—yes, serious!
“The moment he walked me into the theater, I knew I was home. That started my journey with this amazing force of nature who I would soon only call ‘Bro.’ From his training to his directing and his friendship, I will be forever grateful of what this man inspired me to become. Some of my favorite memories are of Bro ‘holding court’ at the Port in Lewiston. All of us would try to beat each other there to snag a seat next to the man himself. The stories, jokes, and advice seemed limitless. I feel him in my heart and am glad that Bro will always be on my shoulder.”
Sam Viverito, a choreographer from the Michael Bennett generation of Buffalo dancers who staged dances for golden age Artpark shows and made a name for himself in industrials, voiced a frequent quandary when asked to select one memory.
“Brother Augustine was many different things to me over the years,” says Viverito. “I first met him as a director, when I was 14. He was kind enough to let me be in the shows at NU while I was still in junior high school. Bev [Fletcher, the legendary dance teacher] had him teach us acting classes at her studio when I was about 15 or 16. I remember the care he took in trying to get us ‘dancers’ to understand Shakespeare and how to speak his language.
“After I moved to New York City, I went back home to work with him as a choreographer. I also had the pleasure of working with his brother, Doug, on a few commercials that I choreographed for CBS. Bro was so proud of his brother and vice-versa. So he began as a ‘grownup’ director, and became a teacher, a co-worker, a boss, but most importantly a mentor and friend. He and Bev had such a special relationship, too. I am sure they are planning their next show together and she has him tap dancing right about now.”
Carmen Ruby Floyd, an actor who has appeared on Broadway in Avenue Q and in Porgy and Bess, recalls the safe place Brother created for students.
“As a senior in high school, I auditioned for the Niagara University theater scholarship program and was required to sing for the entire theater staff, including Lynne Kurdziel-Formato, who encouraged me to audition. My first song, ‘Dere’s a Café’ from Carmen Jones, was fun and flirty.
“Now I was a kid, but I was committed. So I sat on Bro’s lap and sang half the song to him. Yes, his round face turned bright red, and Lynne, Sharon, and everyone got a laugh. Already thinking ahead to my future, Bro told me that I should never do that when I got to New York City, but later admitted he loved it. [My] second selection, ‘God Bless the Child,’ was his favorite. I haven’t sung it in a long time but I feel a revival coming on. Thanks for blessing me, Bro!”
David Granville met Brother Augustine in 1989 and recalls him as a man who spread his gifts far and wide.
“Bro never tired of passing along the gifts of theater: imagination and craft,” Granville observes. “And his gifts in teaching, poetry, and counsel were also given with the same spirit of generosity. Like the muse itself, the artistry he shared transcended the work of one man and became a vocation that transformed us all. Bro didn’t have a driver’s license. He relied on those who could to drive him places he needed to be. An interesting choice, isn’t it, for someone who brought us to places beyond our dreams.”
Adriano Gatto, a rising star of the Buffalo theater scene, recalls Brother Augustine as someone in whom you could confide.
“He was a gentle soul whose spirit could inspire anything from the smallest smile to the largest life decisions,” Gatto says. “He challenged you to not only be an intelligent and generous performer, but a human being contributing to the community. In times of great loss or difficulty, Bro was always the man we went to. During my time as a student, he would instantly know when something was bothering or challenging me. He would invite me into his office, tell me to sit down and spill it before I even uttered a greeting. He taught us how to face obstacles and persevere.
“Bro and I were very close in the last 10 years. I am incredibly grateful that I had the opportunity to spend some time with him a few weeks ago. His smile was beaming as we sat and talked about his life in Philadelphia, the changes happening with Niagara University theater, and, more importantly, his family.”
Actor and acting teacher Maureen Porter, too, had been one of Brother Augustine’s NU stars. She observes that we only realize some gifts retrospectively.
“You don’t know when you are a kid that you are being taught/trained/mentored/enlightened by the best,” says Porter. “You just do it. Bro was just our guy. He was the one whom you wanted to sit next to at Northport. He was the one that you wanted to see before the show and go out with after the show. He was the one from whom you wanted to get a Christmas card. He was the one who could convince a great lyricist like Lee Adams that it was okay to have college students (along with Barbara Marineau and Gary Dawson) engage in the production of I and Albert at Artpark. Of course this opportunity gave way to many more opportunities with Charlie Strouse, John and Fred, Chita, Eileen Heckart, and hosts of others. This was our daily life. He created a surrounding that was full of opportunity, but we didn’t know it at the time.”
One of the gifts of Brother Augustine was to bring the stars to earth for his students. With his easy and friendly manner and the assurance of his clerical collar, he could make superstars become real people. Students could meet them, talk to them, and learn from them. In return, these luminaries valued Brother Augustine’s friendship.
“The loss of Brother Augustine is a huge loss to the community and to me personally,” says John Kander, composer of such shows as Cabaret, Chicago, and Kiss of the Spider Woman. “We were close friends for many years through work and visits and phone calls. And we gave each other constant, useless advice on how our lives should be lived. But Bro’s great legacy will always be the extraordinary theater department he built ‘with his own two hands’ at Niagara University, and the great and positive impact he had on the students whose lives he touched. I hope he knew, at the end, what enormous worth his life had been. I will miss him terribly.”
Chita Rivera’s reaction to his passing was no less emotional and personal.
“Brother Augustine was a warm, welcoming light to all of us who needed someone to listen to us, understand us, guide us, and care about us,” observes the woman who created the roles of Anita in West Side Story, Rosie in Bye Bye Birdie, Velma in Chicago, and Aurora in Kiss of the Spider Woman.
“One of my favorite memories was three years ago when, excited about going to Rome with my daughter Lisa and my friend Rosie, I called Brother and asked if he could suggest a place to stay. He said absolutely. He said he’d phoned the ‘perfect place’ and had spoken to the person running it. She was expecting us. ‘She’ was a nun, and the place was a ‘convent’! We had a glorious time in Rome, with accommodations very close to the Vatican, thanks to Brother! I shall miss him, but know he will always be with me.”
Even I have my Brother Augustine memories. After reading my articles and critiques in Artvoice and in Theater Week magazine, when Bro met me, he heaped praise upon me until I felt embarrassed. He made specific pointed observations about criticism, dramaturgy, and our mutual love of the theater. Then he did something that stuns me to this day. He invited me to come speak to his own students to do a dramaturgical analysis of each show in the NU season that year at the beginning of rehearsals. He said there was some money in the budget for this, and he insisted upon paying me. I loved doing this, and recall that one of those students was Carmen Ruby Floyd.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that Bro thought I should be using my passion for theater to teach. This little nudge from Brother Augustine has informed my entire career. I am on the theater faculty at Buffalo State, and I consider teaching a vital component of theater journalism to this day. Incidentally, I still have the checks. I never cashed them.
Brother Augustine was originally from Hempstead, New York. At the time of his death, he was living at St. Vincent’s Seminary, the provincial headquarters of the Eastern Province of the Congregation of the Mission in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was 75 years old.
He is survived by his sisters, Anne Towey and Brenda Romanski; his nephew, Scott Romaski; his niece, Helen Tostaine, and her husband, Gregory; and his sister-in-law, Helen Towey. He was predeceased by his brother, Douglas.
A local memorial is being planned at NU for a date to be determined this spring.
Memorial donations may be made to the Brother Augustine Towey Theatre Scholarship Fund, c/o Niagara University, Office of Institutional Advancement, Lewiston Rd., Niagara University, NY 14109.
Farewell, Bro. You will be in our hearts always.
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